A U.S. military official said American forces became aware of the threats only last month and now have erected barriers around the largest Christian enclave in Baghdad`s Dora neighborhood in an effort to protect its residents.
Christians in Baghdad refuse to discuss the threats for fear of retribution. But in Syria, where thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled, tales abound of families that were killed or driven from their homes because they either refused or couldn`t afford to pay the jizya, a tax usually levied on non-Muslim men of military age that`s been part of Islam for more than 1,000 years.
"Two or three months ago, we heard we were going to be forcibly removed from Dora," said Rafah Elia Daoud, 53, who fled to Damascus, Syria`s capital, on May 24. "Not everyone got a paper with the threat, but we knew. The choice was to convert, pay the jizya or get out."
"My brother was threatened; my sister was threatened. All of them had to pay the jizya," added her husband, Jamal Antone Karoumy, 66. "One of my brothers got a note and a single bullet under his door. The note said, `If you don`t pay the jizya to the resistance, you`ll be killed.`"
Madeline Shukr Yusuf, 74, is still shaken by her recent escape to Damascus. She said she did not have enough money to pay a monthly jizya of 250,000 Iraqis dinars, about $200. The insurgents were determined to collect their tax, she said.
"They wanted to kill me and take my gold bracelets," she said, tears filling her eyes at the memory. "They tell us pay or give a daughter in marriage to a fighter."
Iraq long had been home to thriving Christian communities, primarily Assyrians and Chaldean Catholics, who trace their roots to ancient Mesopotamia. Some of Saddam Hussein`s closest confidants were Christian, including his foreign minister, Tarik Aziz. Christian communities were prominent in many major Iraqi cities, including Mosul in the north and Basra in the south.
Baghdad had major Christian enclaves in the central neighborhood of Karada, the eastern mostly Shiite neighborhood of New Baghdad and nearby al-Ghadir and the notorious Sunni-dominated Doura in the capital`s south.
As Iraq has descended into chaos, however, many Christians have fled, joining an estimated 2.2 million exiles, including 1.4 million Iraqis now estimated to be living in Syria. At least 19,000 Iraqi Christians have registered in Damascus with the United Nations refugee agency, and thousands more are thought to have sought shelter there, but have yet to register.
A Christian Iraqi legislator estimated Tuesday that a half-million Christians have fled Iraq since 2004.
"What is happening today in Iraq against Christians is shameful," Ablahad Afram Sawa said in an impassioned statement read to Iraq`s parliament by its speaker. He said Christians hadn`t faced such oppression in nearly 2,000 years. "Most of the churches in Baghdad have closed their doors," he added.
Iraqi officials said others have left their homes but remained in the country. At least 1,050 Christians from Baghdad and Mosul have taken up residence in Kurdish areas of northern Iraq in the past month, according to Nowrooz Khan, spokesman for the Ministry of Migration and Displacement.
The relationship between Christians and Muslims has been a complex one. In the Middle Ages, Christian crusaders tried to capture Jerusalem from Muslim rule at least 10 times, and modern-day extremists still invoke those efforts in calling for jihad - holy war - to defend their faith.
Al-Qaida, which has killed thousands of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, also has targeted Christians, whom Iraqis widely consider to be pacifists.
Still, early Muslims considered Christians, along with Jews, to be "people of the book," as Muslims refer to followers of other monotheistic religions, and believed they were entitled to protection under Islamic rule, in exchange for jizya, as the tax was called. It was considered a substitute for the tax for the poor, zakat, which Muslims pay annually.
In some cases, Christians who fought alongside Muslims were exempted from the jizya and shared in the spoils of war equally with Muslims.
Sawa, in his statement to the Iraqi parliament, recalled how some Christians fought against European crusaders. The first general said to have entered Jerusalem after Salahaddin repulsed the crusaders was a Christian.
In Iraq today, however, fear is palpable among Christians. On Sunday, a priest was gunned down in Mosul with three companions after afternoon prayers. His body lay in the streets for hours. Another priest was kidnapped on Wednesday in New Baghdad.
Christians in the capital refuse to talk. At a church in Karada, a priest shooed away a McClatchy correspondent. Nearby, five black funeral banners graced with yellow crosses fluttered in the wind.
Rumors abound. Residents said a priest and an altar boy were killed on Wednesday and their church was burned, but they refused to say more. "We are afraid of retribution," one said. The U.S. military denied that the incident occurred.
It is unclear when the Islamic State of Iraq, an insurgent umbrella group that`s dominated by al-Qaida in Iraq, began demanding that Christians either leave their neighborhoods or pay the tax.
A U.S. military spokesman said American troops had been aware that some Christians were being forced from their homes, but realized only recently that it was a wide-scale campaign.
"We are aware that some Christians have left the area," Maj. Kirk Luedeke, a spokesman for the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Army`s 1st Infantry Division, said in an e-mail. "But we weren`t aware until last month how widespread the situation was, after initially being led to believe it was a few isolated incidents of intimidation."
Since then, Luedeke said, the U.S. military has erected barriers around Dora`s largest Christian enclave and begun a census to identify Christian residents so they can be checked on regularly.
Such efforts, however, are too late for thousands of Iraqi Christians who have flooded Jaramana, an industrial area on the southeast outskirts of Damascus and a popular destination for Iraqi Christian refugees.
In apartment after ramshackle apartment, Iraqi Christians this week recounted the horror of being forced from their homes after demands for jizya - or worse.